The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has gathered and documented inventions for more than 200 years. Now a team of researchers is mining that past to predict the emerging technologies of the future, the New Scientist reported.
Every new filing to the patent office has to cite related previous patents. So complex systems researcher Péter Érdi and his colleagues at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences wrote a computer program to analyze those citations. Their analysis showed that patents cluster in groups of related inventions. Over time, the clusters spawned their own branches or merged with one another. The new program tracks those evolutions in the past, then applies the same patterns to the future.
The program predicted the rise of non-woven textiles—fabrics made by squeezing fibers together—which is a young, emerging field of study today, the New Scientist reported. The program may also make incorrect predictions, however. The science magazine cited a flawed prediction the program would have made during the dot-com boom, given data only from the 1990s and before.
Sheryl Connelly, a professional futurist for the Ford Motor Company, told the New Scientist that the program "sounds like a great antenna for what is happening in the marketplace and the kind of discussions people are having." She warned against relying on it solely, however, as those that did would find themselves following technologies that already have many people working on it, instead of finding unique innovations.
Perhaps it would be more useful to journalists looking tech trends.